PHILADELPHIA -- It's tough being a pro football coach in Cleveland. Butch Davis found that out last week.
When you get the gas, the talk shows are all over you. The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's morning paper, wrote that "no amount of effort could knock down the walls [Davis] built between himself and his players, between himself and the people who wanted to love the team" and he was "the most inept coach of all, of whom it would have been said that his team took on his personality, except that he doesn't have one." The Akron Beacon-Journal, just down the street, wrote: "He believed that we Midwestern hayseeds knew nothing about football. We were supposed to believe this man invented the game ... The fans and media had every reason to wonder if this man had a heart ... All most players did was mess up his brilliant game plans."
The Beacon-Journal called him the "Browns' worst coach, ever."
But that man was still coaching at Cleveland Browns Stadium yesterday: Bill Belichick.
Patriots 42, Butch Davis-less Browns 15.
I was on a talk show on WKNR in Cleveland last week. The host, Greg Brinda, a longtime Clevelander, said something along the lines of: If Davis felt big-time pressure here, imagine what he would have felt in a market like New York or Boston or Philladelphia. Not so fast, I replied. In New York, when the Giants stink, the public turns its attention to Jason Giambi or the Knicks or the Jets or whatever else. When the Giants stink (and I know, having covered them for Newsday for four years), the media bury them and move on to find another team or player to glorify or condemn. In Cleveland, the Browns are big 365/24/7. The Indians are large, too, but it's not the same. I might be exaggerating a bit, but it's similar to the respective attention the Cowboys and the Rangers get in Dallas, or maybe the Red Sox and the Bruins in Boston. In Cleveland, there's a No. 1 and a No. 2, and you're never confused about who's No. 1.
Cleveland likes a scapegoat, as many sports fandoms do. And last week, Davis was that scapegoat, fed to the wolves. I don't blame the Browns for cutting the cord. Not at all. It wasn't working. And while I'm not suggesting Davis will emulate Belichick and in nine years have two Super Bowl rings on his fingers, I am saying there's not a single Browniac who ever thought Belichick would have two Super Bowl championships either, unless he got them while working for Bill Parcells.
Belichick and Davis had other things in common. They were both ultra-controlling. Belichick learned from his Cleveland experience, and he also put a guy in place in New England as vice president of player personnel, Scott Pioli, who has become his sounding board and isn't afraid to tell him he's downright wrong sometimes. I never got the sense in Cleveland that Davis had that aide-de-camp who'd tell him he was screwing up. You need that. You need to know, as a coach, that the players, the majority of them, dislike and do not trust you, as my SI.com NFL colleague Don Banks reported about Davis.
I have since found out that two events in Davis' tenure turned off several key people in the Cleveland front office. One was Davis -- insanely, in my opinion -- last year ignoring the advice of consultant Ron Wolf, the best general manager in recent NFL history. Wolf analyzed every Browns player but never got a return call from Davis asking to learn the results of Wolf's film study. And this was the incident that got Davis off on the wrong foot with the Browns' scouts, according to an employee with access to the Cleveland draft room: After weeks of analyzing prospects and interviewing them, the Browns set their 2001 draft board with Georgia defensive end Richard Seymour No. 1 and Florida defensive tackle Gerard Warren No. 3. Both were available when the Browns were on the clock with the third overall choice in the first round. And the Browns picked Warren. Seymour has been a very good end (mostly) and tackle (sometimes) for Belichick's world champion Patriots; Warren has been a disappointment, and occasional miscreant, for the Browns.
Davis also was too much of a control freak at times. When his players were on the road, they were confined to the road hotel. If there was just a so-so restaurant in the hotel and a Ruth's Chris two blocks away, too bad. If in Cincinnati a player wanted to walk down Vine Street to get a plate of Skyline Chili, sorry. That would drive me out of my cotton-picking mind. There's a difference between discipline and telling your players you don't trust them. This clearly was a case of the latter. Maybe Davis had a reason, but locking players in the hotel on the road sends an awful message to your team.
But scapegoating in the NFL, while a widespread practice, is also short-sighted. The rebuilt Browns, who re-entered the NFL in 1999 after the Art Modell defection four years earlier, have a recent history of awful moves. In his book, False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail, Beacon-Journal columnist Terry Pluto wrote that club president Carmen Policy went to owner Al Lerner in December 1998 and told him the franchise wasn't ready to get up and running in 1999. Policy asked Lerner to push the Browns' debut to 2000. Lerner refused, telling Policy too much of the business plan (season tickets, sponsorships, NFL scheduling) was ready to go in 1999. Pluto also says Policy admitted he never intended for Dwight Clark to be the all-decisive general manager, but that's the flow the front office took.
Clark's tenure, to be charitable, was an unmitigated disaster. Of the 61 combined picks in the 1999 expansion draft and the '99 and 2000 college drafts (those were double-draft picks years in rounds three through seven for Cleveland), only one, cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, is a full-time starter. So when Davis walked in from the University of Miami in 2001, he was basically taking over an expansion team -- without all the built-in advantages an expansion team has.
I want to say that again, just so you get the enormity of how pathetic the player selection was by this front office in 1999 and 2000: One player of the 61 picked in the first two years is a regular starter now. That is so alarmingly bad it's hard to fathom. Let's take away the 37 expansion draft picks. One of the 24 draft choices, picking first overall each year, is a regular starter in 2004.
When you want to roast Davis on the open fire, think of that.
When I talked to Davis last week, he told me what killed him with the players was having to shed $25 million from the Browns' cap after their playoff season in 2002. He's right, though it's a little misleading. When he cut the injured Jamir Miller then, that lopped $14 million off the cap right there. So it was really only $11 million that had to be cut. And the loss of respected locker-room guys like Corey Fuller and Dave Wohlabaugh -- for subpar performance as well as money reasons -- reverberated in the locker room long after they were gone.
Davis deserves a chunk of the blame today, to be sure. But more goes to Policy, Clark and the first coaching staff. On Wednesday, the day after I talked to Davis, I got a call from someone in the Browns' organization, asking if I would like to see a personnel sheet entailing the team's roster movement from 2001 to 2004. Sure, I said. When the e-mail came, I knew why Davis wanted me to see this. (I assume it was he who directed it be sent to me.) The salient points:
· Of the 63 players on the roster in Davis' first years, 43 of them (68 percent) are out of football.
· Only two of 31 inherited offensive players -- Dennis Northcutt, Aaron Shea -- are still Browns.
· Not a single quarterback, offensive lineman or linebacker from the 2001 teams is still with Cleveland.
"When up and down the roster high picks don't make an expansion team long-term, you're going to have a problem," Davis said.
My recommendation: The Browns have to get the best personnel guy in the league who's available now. That's not Pioli, who withdrew from contention for any job last week and won't change his mind. Interview Randy Mueller, Phil Savage and Tom Heckert, at least, and pick the best scout available. Players, Cleveland. You need players.